INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Wire JULY 1997 - by Brian Eno
OUR GUEST COLUMNIST BEAMS IN FROM ST PETERSBURG
I'm in St Petersburg. I decided to live here for six months. Everyone asked me why, or what plans did I have here? I don't have any plans. I just felt like being somewhere else, to get a bit of distance.
I suppose I ought to write about music. Trouble is I'm not sure how much I have to say about it. Nearly everything I've heard here has been computer stuff or Russian Pop. Russian pop is kitschy and bubbly and not-that-bad in the right light, but you wouldn't want to face it the next morning. Computer music is universal and sounds almost exactly the same all over the world. With a few striking exceptions, I hear pieces and think, "Oh... I see... that's sort of quite interesting in theory" and never have the impulse to listen again. I ought to be more excited about it, since, after all, I probably played some part in preparing the ground for it, but it sounds to me increasingly like diligent and careful secretarial work which happens to have taken place in front of a music sequencing program rather than, say, a spreadsheet program. The sound of mice and typewriters... I don't think that it's a lack of passion that disturbs me... I never felt strongly pro-passion anyway. It's more the sense that the person making the music was not actually fully engaged - fully there - that big parts of their being were never invited to the party.
But I have heard something else. There's this obscure radio station here which endlessly plays the most beautiful music - liquid, sinuous, long-limbed songs full of graceful downward slides, a soft, unassertive lead voice echoed in glorious semi-skilled unison by a large group of people, right on the cusp between instrumental music and singing. Song after song, each one internally repetitive but embroidered by the lovely collisions and interlocks that inevitably arise when lots of people do something joyous together. It grabs me completely, because it sounds like people living and singing and feeling something deeply all at the same time. The station is called radio Krishna, and, whatever the Krishnauts' beliefs (and I have no idea what those are), at least these people sound like they are alive, immersed in something other than a dismal career in the music business.
I was in a big art gallery in Los Angeles once. There was a Frank Stella painting about 60 feet long, and next to it a tiny, jewel-like eight inch square collage, and a little further along a Boltanski piece using framed black and white photos and table lamps and boxes of old clothing, and next to that a Nam June Paik sculpture made of working TV sets. I found myself envying visual artists the endless range of forms their productions could take - big, small, 2D, 3D, 4D, colourful, dull, glossy, rough, smooth, figurative, abstract - and I compared it in my mind with making a CD. Suddenly that seemed like a narrow bottleneck through which all music had to be squeezed. Imagine if you said to all the visual artists of the world: "OK guys... from now on the only way that people are going to see your work is in magazines - on 11" x 8" colour pages." What would happen to painting? Well, Frank Stella probably wouldn't bother with making his things 60 feet long - he'd make something that looked adequate at the 11" x 8" scale. Similarly all the others... because if the final format is only capable of certain things, that's what you'll end up regarding as your working palette.
So what I find exciting now is discovering music that hasn't obediently designed itself to slot within the constraints of this arbitrary medium - recorded music - and which is somehow bigger than it, overflowing at its edges, extending beyond its horizons. Yes - I want to feel the music is too big to fit on a little old CD, that there is more to it than that, that it has a separate life from my hi-fi - a life I can imagine and add to my aural experience of the music. That's what I hear in some great gospel, jazz and R&B recordings, and I hear it too with the Krishnauts. What I want to hear is music that exists for some other reason than that the artist wanted to make a bit more CD earfood. Even the suspicion that someone might have felt something at some point in the process would do.
Radio Krishna, by the way, is part of an important and largely unremarked movement in the former Communist bloc. Russia is bursting with religion. The Communists, in seeking to ridicule and subdue it, succeeded instead in giving it an unchallenged (and probably unjustified) charisma as the voice of opposition - the authentic counterculture - and the only place you would be allowed to entertain all those thoughts and feelings that didn't fit into the reductive language of dialectical materialism. As a result, the country is teeming with UFOlogists, astrologists, phrenologists, swamis, gurus, palmists, healers and Buddhists of every T-shirt colour.
The Orthodox Church is making a big return as well. Perhaps it never really went away. Everywhere there are people selling cassette tapes of Orthodox services out of suitcases almost like they were Grateful Dead bootlegs. And the music is transcendentally fabulous - a group of monks or priests singing acapella in what sounds at first like elaborately filigreed, counterpointed Gregorian chant. In it you hear so many different, rich worlds - the Western religious tradition, the more exotic southerly and Greco-Arabic influences, and the austerity of the far North.
What you sense in these musics is a complete absence of people walking back into the control room and saying, "Can you stick a bit more reverb on the snare?", a complete absence of producers dicking around with the sound, of engineers getting people to hammer kick drums all morning, of blokes in faded black T-shirts sitting in front of computers and making loops... what you hear, in fact, is the complete absence of the workaday process of 'making a record'. These people are not 'making a record', they are making music because it creates for them a world they want to inhabit, makes them feel alive, and that life floods out over the edges of the recording and into you, the listener.
And that, I'm starting to think, should be an artist's minimum ambition.